Pursue Excellence, Not Perfection

I've been writing recently about Ed Catmull's book Creativity, Inc. It's hard to overstate just how insightful the book is, often in a very nuanced way. Catmull talks about how companies that achieve a string of major product successes often lose the lean, small company qualities that made them successful in the first place. With every successful new product the company grows, new employees are hired, and costs go up. Employees feel pressure to cover costs and create yet another blockbuster product, pursuing a paralyzing type of perfection. They end up spending more and more time on excessive detail -- striving for a perfect product -- and too little time on really meaningful but risky product innovations.

As a company grows, it often loses the risk-taking spirit of a smaller business trying to survive. Pressure to create another "perfect" blockbuster product, increasing costs and employee headcount, and an imposing history of past successes: (1) lead to incrementally safer product choices; and (2) stifle the candid, free-flowing collaboration/feedback needed to generate outside the box ideas and innovations.

Pixar has addressed the problem of past successes by holding a "Notes Day" at which employees give unfettered, candid "notes" on how the company can operate in a more effective, cost efficient way. It's easier to justify risky new products, and to survive future competitive challenges, when operations are lean. This process teaches employees the importance of candid feedback and collaboration.

There's a cautionary tale here for Apple, which is a blockbuster company like Pixar. Apple has had a string of past successes, and there's certainly pressure to continue that trend. Apple has also been increasing its costs and headcount. The challenge for Apple is to maintain the vibrant, candid collaboration/feedback, and risk-taking spirit, of a smaller, leaner company.

The author owns stock shares of Apple.